It’s an icy January morning. I’ve just stumbled out of Riga International Airport after a 6AM flight, and I’m trudging through the exhaust-stained slush on my way to the bus station. Which is worse, the dry burn in my throat from the cold I developed overnight or the harsh sting on my face from the ferocious winter wind? My heavy backpack weighs down on my exhausted body, my soaked Nikes cling mercilessly to my frozen feet, my tired eyes blink hysterically to avoid the horizontally blowing snow, and I am miserable.
How did I end up in this situation?
I am an American college student enrolled in a London study abroad program. As average as that sounds, I have made it my mission to take this experience further than the typical three month, lightning speed European tour that most Americans embark on. I don’t want to cross popular destinations off a list, I want to explore under-appreciated towns and find hidden secrets. I don’t want a vacation, I want a cultural adventure.
This desire to venture away from the tourist lifestyle and immerse myself in the unexpected has brought me to the capital of Latvia, where my shivering, soggy, sleep-deprived and flu-ridden body huddles by the bus stop in the darkness of early morning. I am completely alone and unprepared, and as my trip progresses, I encounter more unfortunate problems. A monstrous snowstorm rages on, daylight only emerges for 4 hours a day, and the streets are practically empty, preventing me from meeting any other travelers, let alone any locals. My spontaneous journey to this quaint Baltic city is not going as planned.
However, as I continue to explore the city with my crinkled paper map and my inadequate winter clothing, I uncover the heartwarming magic of Riga through its unique local shops and its magnificent Art Nouveau architecture, thus excavating optimism from within me and finding appreciation for the obstacles that originally disheartened me.
Insights into Riga
Instead of resenting the snow, I admire how it forms soft, fluffy blankets that rest atop the quirky, colorful buildings of the picturesque Old Town. Instead of despising the wind, I embrace how it breathes life into the quiet parks and rustles the delicate branches of the Christmas trees sprinkled throughout the city. Instead of detesting the bitter cold, I warm my bones with a delicious, steaming vegetable stew from an adorable cafe called the Fat Pumpkin.
Though my trip to Riga is short, I try to make the best of every moment. Whenever my hands start to go numb from walking around in the cold, I stumble into a nearby shop and browse through the unique handicrafts that decorate the shelves. When my flu symptoms start to flare up and interrupt my day, I embark on a hunt for some local food for nourishment. The Raw Garden is a quaint little vegan cafe that serves a heavenly pumpkin ginger soup which truly revived my tired body.
Riga at Night
When darkness consumes the city as nighttime approaches, I retreat to my cozy hostel, called Cinnamon Sally, and drink tea on the comfy cushions of my windowsill. As I relax in the warmth of the indoors, I gaze out at the furious snow flurries dancing wildly around my window. Even in the dark, Riga resembles a scene out of a holiday snow globe, and its comfortable charm shines through even the most inclement weather. I feel proud of myself for conquering the day, despite sickness and harsh weather conditions. I feel lucky to have discovered the magnificent architecture and welcoming hospitality of Riga, and I feel grateful to the city for showing me that any unfortunate situations can’t tarnish the eccentric beauty of Latvia’s capital city.
Written by: Gabrielle Boucher
After completing a degree in International Studies and studying abroad in Europe, Gabby is attempting to take her travel experience to the next level. She has spent the last year bar tending in Peru, writing articles in the Ecuadorian jungle, tasting wine in Portugal, visiting castles in Romania, and stuffing herself with curry in Thailand. She brings her love for food, animals, and exercise with her everywhere, and hopes to somehow build a career in the travel industry.
Photographs by Gabrielle Boucher